Wai Khru Day

By Laura, Cultural Embrace Teach in Thailand

In June, every school in Thailand celebrates Wai Khru Day, a day in which students show their appreciation to their teachers. We had been told about the occasion during orientation, and were excited to experience this Thai tradition which is so unlike anything we have back home.

On June 14th, all lessons were cancelled and we headed to the canteen area to watch the Wai Khru ceremony. Rows and rows of students sat facing the stage. On the stage was a Buddhist spirit house as well as dozens of Thai teachers wearing their official blue uniform. The sound of students singing songs and saying prayers to their teachers rang out across the campus. I just wish I knew enough Thai to understand what they were saying! Students then came up in rows to present beautiful hand-made flower arrangements to their teachers. This wasn’t any walking up and handing them though. Students would first kneel before the spirit house to pray, bow down to the floor, then walk on their knees to the teachers to hand over the flowers.

All I kept thinking was that there is NO WAY ON THIS EARTH you would get students in the UK on their knees crawling towards teachers to give them flowers! To be honest, I had mixed feelings about it; the whole concept here of appreciating teachers and being respectful is amazing and something which should be universal. However, I couldn’t help wondering if making students walk on their knees to ensure that they were physically below them was taking it a bit too far, especially when this extends to the staff room and classroom where students kneel at the foot of the teacher rather than stand above them. I feel mean making them go down onto the hard floor while I’m there in my comfy chair!

Regardless of such thoughts, it was fascinating and enjoyable to watch. We were asked to accompany the Thai teachers in presenting badges to students. Of course, we were asked to do this in broken Thai, accompanied by hand gestures. Before we knew it, we were in front hundreds of students looking at each other wondering what we were doing! Regardless, it was nice to be included in such a ceremony. Looking back at the photos was funny: in a line-up of the teachers, we could not have stood out more with our height, blonde hair and white skin!

The flower arrangements were beautiful. Bright pink, red and yellow flowers were positioned among leaves which had been folded and intertwined to create impressive displays, which included a dragon, a heart, and birds. Students have lessons on how to construct such arrangements, as they are a traditional part of Thai culture.

While admiring the displays we fell prey to the Thai teachers, who used this as a photo opportunity to have their picture taken with ‘suay farangs’. Soon we were posing and smiling with one teacher after another, as they took turns to get in between us and get a snap before ordering their students to stand with us and do the same. One particular camp teacher with whitening powder clinging to his face was loving it, and practically pushed students out of the way to get in as many photos as possible! It’s strange, this feeling like a celebrity. I thought I’d hate it, but it’s actually quite nice feeling that you are somebody rather than nobody, with people interested in who you are and keen to connect with you. It makes me wonder how I’ll adjust to coming back home and blending into the background, walking down the street and no-one noticing me, just being a regular face among many.

The ceremony which I have just described took place three times that day, as there were too many students for one sitting. Once I had attended the first ceremony, I spent the day at my desk doing work, but was frequently interrupted by students coming in and out of the office to give flowers to teachers and wish them health and happiness. It was really sweet. Some even sang songs and played instruments: we had a particularly good group rendition of Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’! I had several students give me small flower decorations and say thank you for teaching them, which was really touching, especially as I haven’t been here long. It’s lovely to feel that what you do is appreciated and makes the job so much more rewarding. It makes me sad that it isn’t like this in the western world. The attitude and values which are embedded in this culture are just so different.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Thai education system is perfect, and although I have just about adjusted to the way things work here, there are things that are still a bit of a shock to the system compared to what I’m used to. I’ve accepted that some of my classes will arrive 20 minutes late, no matter what I do. I have accepted that it is pointless planning too far ahead, as things frequently change at the last minute. I have accepted that they will copy from each other, and am convinced that even a brick wall in between each of them wouldn’t be able to change this. I am no longer shocked or frustrated to sit for 20 minutes waiting for my class only to go back to the office and be told that they have some ’activity’ which takes precedence over educational lessons. I’m struggling to accept that some students can just not turn up week on week (yesterday I had 13 students out of 32) but cannot fail, and that the grade I give them can be changed by Thai teachers if they or their parents are not happy with it. I do wonder what the Thais would make of our education system…I’m sure they’d think that we were a bunch of obsessive, organised, regimental freaks! I guess at least in the western world, we can say confidently that students have been taught from a National Curriculum and that they will get the grade they deserve. Also that a large proportion of the teaching time is not wasted waiting for students to get to class or doing some random activity (my current class is now cancelled because they are doing a puppet workshop). The language barrier also means that I can’t fully understand the education system, and hence it is harder to know what is normal and acceptable; I’m sure that students take advantage of having a foreign teacher as they know that we are in many ways powerless and in the dark. On the other hand, the lack of knowledge also means that you don’t have the stress of getting caught up in politics and gossip like you would find back home. I can just do my job and remain oblivious to most other factors, which although is not ideal long term, provides quite a nice respite.

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